How to cross a fast flowing river

Exploring the wonders of the wilderness is not always so easy and smooth as you might think. Nature has many obstacles that may come across your way. One of them is crossing a river that’s blocking your path. Because there are many hazards in it, river crossing is actually a dangerous undertaking, from slipping on a rock and get carried away to lowering your body temperature in cold weather.

Your best option is to avoid crossing a river, but if that’s not an option, here are few tips on how to do it safely.

Crossing rivers and streams

Fast flowing river
Fast flowing river

Streams and rivers are basically the same things; the only difference is that streams can be more narrow, shallow and moving slower. The fundamentals for crossing a stream and a river are same.

Where to cross

The most important thing to do is to look for the safest place to cross. Try to find a place where the water is the most shallow, with series of narrow channels, and where there are dry and secure rocks out of the water, possibly with a footstep distance between them. Make sure you use rocks to cross as your last resort method since they be slippy and you might tumble into the water. It’s crucial to walk slow and steady, and make sure you keep your balance while crossing.

Icy river
Icy river

Whatever you do, do not try to cross a river or a stream near a waterfall, through a wide or deep part of the running water, an area with strong currents, or parts of the river that are excessively cold. Also try to avoid swimming in cold temperatures, since that can cause hypothermia and can be very dangerous in a survival situation.


The depth of the stream or river shouldn’t be a big concern as long as you can keep secure footing. The water is moving slower if the water is deep, and that means that it would be easier to cross. But, do not cross a river if the water exceeds your height.

Getting wet

Try to get as little wet as you can while crossing the water. You can cross it barefoot, holding your shoes and socks in your hands. But, if the river is slippery, you’ll probably want to cross with your shoes for the traction they offer. Make sure you dry them out as soon as possible after you reach the opposite side.


River Crossing Near Kuala Juram, Gunung Tahan. – Author: Shaiful Azman Bin Abdul Rahim – CC BY-SA 3.0
River Crossing Near Kuala Juram, Gunung Tahan. – Author: Shaiful Azman Bin Abdul Rahim – CC BY-SA 3.0

Make sure you hold your backpack and other equipment above your head so that it stays dry. If by any chance you get carried downstream by the current, unattach your backpack since it can weigh you down under the current.

Crossing Rapids

Rapids are a part of a river that has water with drastically increased velocity. Crossing them provides a more unique challenge than crossing a simple stream or river. While the water is much shallower than the rest of a river, the trade-off it is much faster and can cause you to slip more easily. They are characterized by rocks that jut out of the stream and white water created from the running water meeting the rocks.

If there is another way of crossing the water, you should avoid passing it through rapids. But, if there is no other way, and you have to cross a rapid, it can be done as long as you do it properly.

Go downstream

Downstream is the best way to cross a fast river
Downstream is the best way to cross a fast river

When crossing rapids, you don’t want to walk upstream. Thay way you’re fighting the current, which makes it harder to cross, and you’re more vulnerable to an injury. So, try to walk downstream or across the rapids.

Caught by a current

If you get caught by a fast current and get carried downstream, make sure you get on your back with your feet aiming downstream. After that, move your arms at your side, and steer your body away from rocks and other hazards. Try angling toward the river shore, so that you get carried there naturally.


Make sure you weat your footwear when crossin the river
Make sure you weat your footwear when crossin the river

While crossing a river or a stream can be done barefoot, crossing rapids should be done with shoes on. Your hiking boots or shoes offer a great traction, and they will protect your feet from the rocks and other hazards.

Walking pole

Stream crossing in Perućica forest – Author: NH53 – CC BY 2.0
Stream crossing in Perućica forest – Author: NH53 – CC BY 2.0

Having a walking pole or a stick is a very good idea when crossing rapids. This also refers to crossing rivers and streams, but it’s much more needed for rapids. Before taking each step, use the pole to secure yourself and to prod under the water. Make sure you have one hand firmly grasped around the pole all the time while using the other hand to balance yourself or also grasping the pole.

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nick-oetken is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival